You Too Can Fly

Ancient Testimony ~ Matthew 3:16–17, Modern Testimony “The Earth – My Own Body I Explored” by Mirabai (c. 1498-1550)

June 06, 2011

by Julia Burkey

Let us pray. God of words and thoughts and feelings, come ignite us with your love so that the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts may be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer.

I have become completely enamored with the most unlikely of suspects. You may have seen her; she boldly walks into traffic, sometimes he comes so close, you can feel the wind on your cheek. Her orange eyes, the iridescent glow of his wings, her fearless spirit – people try to punt her when she’s walking down the sidewalk! Yes if you haven’t guessed it yet, I am talking about the pigeon. I love pigeons.

My love affair with pigeons began on a gorgeous Sunday after church when I decided to walk into the park. Something caught my eye across the fountain. There was a man in a forest green jacket with his hands in his pockets, and at just the moment I looked over, two pigeons with their wings spread landed on his arms. Their white silhouettes against his dark jacket made them look like angels.

Mesmerized, I walked over to him. We started talking and he told me that some time ago, when he was walking through the park, he saw a fallen nest with two baby pigeons. The pigeons looked up at him and seemed to be saying, “Are you gonna kill us or save us?” “Ughh, I’m going to save you.” He said. So he took them back to his home on Long Island and raised them. When he felt they were ready, he brought them back to Washington Square Park and set them loose. Now every time he walks through the park, these two pigeons descend down to him. And all of their offspring do the same.

I stood there with the man as he welcomed me into the world of pigeons, explaining their patterns of flight and telling me their names. I got brave enough and held one of them on my hand, her name was Karma. I got to see the purple and greens of her feathers up close and could feel the warmth circulating in her feet. Just as I was getting comfortable with her, a group of pigeons swept up from behind us and gathered her and the others at the top of the arch. “What was that about?” I asked. He told me that besides their very responsive fright tactic, they really just love to fly. “Flying is fun,” he said, “you would do it too.”

These creatures that I had previously called rats with wings, had become beautiful messengers of the divine.

Birds and bird signs have been messengers of the divine for a long time. The founding of Rome was dependent on Romulus seeing 12 birds and Remus seeing six. Horus, a deity from Ancient Egypt, has the head of a falcon. Zu is a Summerian God represented by a lion headed eagle. Zeus was also depicted as an eagle, the eagle is now our national bird, on any quarter, all over buildings.

We have a bird in our midst, Violet the red tailed hawk who lives outside the president’s office of NYU, with her baby, “Pip.” I bet right now, thousands of New Yorkers are on the “Hawk cam,” watching Violet with her wounded leg, rip apart animals to feed her baby. This has captivated us.

In the hospital on Friday I met a man who was recovering from heart surgery. He said that as he was praying to God for strength and for healing, he looked out his ninth floor window and saw a robin appear. The robin’s red breast reminded him of the vitality of his own heart, and the fact that robbins always appear in springtime reminded him of his own springtime, that this was a new beginning for him.

After my grandmother died, my brother reported that, on the way to the funeral a bright red cardinal distinctly appeared in an area where they would have been rare. Because my grandmother was red, he took this as a reminder of her beauty and her life.

Last year at the Judson retreat, at our Sunday service on the lake, a heron or egret glided over the water, and put in our hearts a sense of peace and knowing, that we were exactly where we needed to be, together.
In our first ancient testimony today that Monica read from Matthew we have an image of the Spirit of God, descending down on Jesus like a dove. This symbolizes the ordination of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, it was a sign that the divine favors him. I think it represents an awakening movement, a moment of transcendence where the channels were open and where God communicated with Jesus giving him a divine yes, a mark of affirmation, “I fully approve of you.”

Today is Ascension Sunday in the Liturgical calendar, where Christians remember Jesus flying up to the divine, and rejoining his source, his beloved parent. The text says that: Jesus put his hands up, and, as he was blessing his disciples, he ascended into the sky. Jesus flew!

These sorts of miracles are unbelievable and they turn a lot of people off from Christianity. We believe in Jesus, that his ministry was wonderful, that he led an important life and was a great teacher, but when it comes to miracles, like Jesus flying, the story becomes unbelievable. But I think this one is important, so I invited myself to stay with it.

Before Jesus imparts his last words of wisdom, he “prepared their minds to understand (the scripture).” And in his teaching he says that, “all people are called to undergo a change of heart (for the forgiveness of sins).” He tells them to wait for the divine to come to them. But then he himself does not wait for the divine, he ascends to the divine.

In our day-to-day fogginess, we aren’t granted the blissful gifts of awakening very regularly. Today we have a different image. Post-Jesus, the model he leaves us is not waiting for the Holy Spirit to descend like a dove, but to Ascend to what we believe to be God. No longer are we an open vessel receiving, we take what we have received and we reverse the direction, we become co-creators with the divine. Rather than taking things as they are, and waiting for the divine to descend upon us, we ascend to it, we rise to the occasion and actively seek the divine.

If we are waiting for the divine to just fall on us, maybe we’re missing something. And what about moments where we are certain the divine is not going to come to us? Take the story of a woman experiencing domestic violence. Is she supposed to wait for the Holy Spirit to descend on her like a dove, is a bird going to show up and remind her of her own beauty, that her body is sacred? In this moment, becoming something else is the only thing that will save her. Many people report out of body experiences during rape and sexual abuse. The model of waiting for the divine to descend like a bird does not hold up here; some people are forced into flight.

I was half expecting similar experiences as Jesus had. I figured that because I loved pigeons, they would love me too. I fantasized about being a St. Francis like figure, in the woods, communicating with the birds and the small animals, with them landing on me and playing with my hair like Cinderella. But it turns out pigeons only love me when I have food for them. This was a disappointing realization.

When the dove lands on Jesus in the Matthew text, it’s implicit that he is the only one that sees this as the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the people around him just see a pigeon, or perhaps they see nothing at all. Jesus had just been baptized, and baptism in its historical context did not just mean to be purified, but it meant to be colored a new. The Greek word for baptize is the same word used to describe drowning and dying fabric. So if you picture it, Jesus was previously crisp white linen and now had been dyed bright red, his whole essence changed by the ritual. He had prepared his mind and changed his heart, and because of this he was able to see and receive the Holy Spirit descending upon him. In the form of an ordinary bird.

Have you ever felt like this? A moment of rarified openness, or oceanic bliss. One might call it transcendence, where we feel to the depth of our core that anything is possible.

Maybe we do this while we are singing, our voice is wrapped up in the harmony of voices around us, contributing to a sound that is magical. Maybe when we see or hear something beautiful, where our heart feels like it overflows into our bodies, causing our eyes to brim over with tears. Maybe it’s during meditation, while making love, while painting, while running, while pursuing justice, reading an incredible book, or in nature out among the trees the birds and the open sky.

I feel transcendence when I’m dancing. In these moments, I feel like I enter into a portal, where time and space expand and I feel changed and opened and divine. I feel like anything is possible, and maybe it is.

In moments like these, I realize that I accept the limit and the finitude of my own body too easily. And as a culture, as people, I think we do the same.

Why not believe that Jesus flew? Why not believe that we can fly? It’s impossible, yes, but belief in impossible things is what changes the world. Two hundred years ago, and some places in this country still, it would’ve been impossible to have a woman in the pulpit, and here I am. My friend and I went out to lunch recently and he remarked to me that in our country’s near past, he, an African-American man, and me, a white woman, sitting at a restaurant together would’ve taken a miracle. Up until a few weeks ago in the Presbyterian Church USA, it was impossible for openly Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trangender and Queer persons to be ordained, and now it is so. And this is just the beginning. Our world, our earth, our shared humanity depend on us believing impossible things.

We fly when we are like the pigeon man saying to the birds “I’m going to save you, not kill you.” We fly when we wield our powers of co-creation with “The Good” in our mind’s eye.

We fly when we imagine the unimaginable together, because it’s as crazy as any Jesus flying miracle that this country could become a more just place. But we need to believe this impossible thing.

Let us become the birds to each other, bearing signs of peace. Let us be miracles to one another, not wait for miracles to come to us, but count on them being there already. Our survival on this earth depends on our ability to fly.

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